Chicken with Wild Garlic – The Photography Edition

My focus today is on the photography end of things. I get so many compliments on my photos, I thought I should show you how I develop my results. In some ways, the photography journey has been long and difficult. In others, it has been a joy of discovery and progress. Now that I am at the stage of knowing how little I know, I am happy to share my approach. To help me along (as this is a food blog), I am using a recent recipe for Chicken with Wild Garlic. Given that this is my first ever post focussing on photography, there is an irony in many of the shots being taken with my iPhone.

The Camera

The first question most people ask me about my photographs is “What camera do you use?”. My answer to that is that it really doesn’t matter. For many years, I have shot using Canon cameras. My advice is to get a DSLR with which you are comfortable and you are ready to get underway. Don’t spend the earth on a top end camera. There is plenty of time to do that later.

My camera with trigger on top. Note the lens, the most important bit of kit.

The Canon I use is not cheap. However, the most important bit to get right is the lens. I shoot my food stuff with a fixed 50mm Canon lens that cost €129 ($150) new. The lens is the most important part of the kit. So, get a budget camera and a workable prime lens. That is all you need on the camera end.

The Lighting

I would love to be in a position to shoot my food stuff “at a North facing window, at midday” as so many photography guides recommend. That’s fine if you are planning on eating early, only taking a final plated shot and you are only shooting lunches. I shoot process that takes lots of time and the sun, like time and tide wait for nobody.

For consistency, I followed some great advice from top Boston-based photographer and all round good guy, Ken Rivard. I had shared my frustrations around changing light with Ken and he recommended I have a go at “off camera flash”. For this, I needed a flash gun, a pair of triggers and a soft-box. You can see the set-up in the photos. Just as important as the flash is the reflector set up. Mine is made of a couple of bits of white foam board with a metal strut, held up by a tin of tomatoes. It really does not matter as long as it works. I occasionally add extra focus with a piece of silver card that would otherwise be used as packaging for smoked salmon.

A classy set up? Not likely. But, it works.

This has allowed me to gain some consistency over my shots and also helps me take those pouring shots that I love so much. There is a reasonable learning curve around flash. I know I am still on that curve but I am improving.

The flash set up is very straightforward. The work is in understanding how to use it.

The technical stuff

I shoot in manual mode, using autofocus (most of the time). I’m not going to make any hard and fast recommendations around ISO, aperture or any of that stuff. Not because I don’t understand it. But more importantly, you need to find what works best for you. To do that, you need to understand it too. There is no way around putting in the hard hours on this stuff. Be prepared for stress, frustration and occasional patches of joy when you manage to get the result you set out to get.

The work surfaces

I use a range of different work surfaces for my shots. If you know somebody laying a wood floor, talk nicely to them and blag the off-cuts. They make for a great wooden backdrop. I have a few of these and use them as I feel suits the mood of the shots. Dark and moody for big beef dinners and light and white for fish is one way to go.

I won’t go into the props just here. You don’t have enough time to read about the array of stuff I have amassed over the last few years. I will do a separate post on that.

So, with all that out-of-the-way, here’s a great recipe for Steamed Chicken with Wild Garlic.

Ingredients for two people

  • 2 free range chicken breasts (the third in the shots went into the freezer)
  • A decent bunch of wild garlic
  • Salt and pepper
  • Calvo Nero Cabbage

I served mine with a lovely wild garlic and hazelnut pesto given to me by a friend who died last year. He was brought back from the other side by paramedics. I was tempted to write a post called “Dead Man’s Pesto” but thought the better of it. It is delicious and apart from his friendship, this pesto makes it worth having him around for a while longer.

Lay out a sheet of cling film and cover it with enough wild garlic to wrap the chicken. Season the chicken with the salt and pepper.

See how the white floorboards work with this type of shot?

Wrap up the chicken in the leaves and fold it all together in the clingfilm. Then wash and chop the Calvo Nero, removing the tough centre stems.

This pic gives a bit more of the reality of the shoot.

Steam the chicken and Calvo Nero for ten minutes at 100ºC. Then divide up the cabbage, slice the chicken, arrange on a well-chosen plate. In this case, I was going for a lot of white to allow the greens pop. I really do think about this stuff. Have a look at the picture below. I thought that a green napkin might work well with my green and white theme. The green is the wrong colour and I rejected it. I do this sort of work while the meal is cooking.

This shot didn’t work for me. I didn’t like the clash of the greens.

Side note on the food: We eat everything I post here. It’s very different to being on a commercial shoot where every single item must look perfect. They are great fun and can be profitable but a terrible waste of food.  As we eat everything, I tend to be under pressure to get my final “plated” shots done. They are usually not perfect but, a man’s gota’ eat. 

This one really works. The whites allow the pesto to really shout.

After all that, we ate the dish. The Calvo Nero has a lovely bitter note to it and was a great foil for the subtle chicken. The pesto had a lovely punch too. One other thing to note. We ate this with some boiled potatoes and butter. I held them back from the photo as I wanted to achieve a stylish sort of look.

The final dish. Very tasty and I think the shot looks OK.

Footnote on photo processing: There are lots of great photo processing programmes available free. The iPhoto application on the Mac is very good. However, a couple of years ago, I invested in Adobe Lightroom. It is as good a processing package (short of photo manipulation in Photoshop) as I know. My best advice is to start with something free and learn it to its limits. Only then should you move on to more advanced software. I use Lightroom for the processing abilities and also for the cataloguing that it has.

Footnote on sponsorship: I have received no sponsorship or payment for any of the gear/software advice and opinion here. I do this for fun and you can too. 

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Latest comments
  • If I were a food blogger, I’d definitely be bookmarking this. As it, my subject has its own challenges, one of them being getting the whole finished object in shot and in decent light…!

  • I love this one, especially with the wild garlic.

  • Great to see behind the scenes and gain some insight as to how you produce so many wonderful pictures! Your comments about window light are very well made, it always amazes me how often I read about the use of natural light in food photography when all too often it is an absolute nonstarter and you show here that it is relatively easy to overcome these limitations. Keep up the good work; you are doing a grand job!

  • The final shot is both a beautiful dish and super photo. Based on what you told me in the past in personal emails, it might be worth pointing out a 50mm prime lens on your pro Canon 5D camera is equivalent to an 80mm lens on cropped sensor cameras, which I suspect the majority of amateur photographers might have, such as my Canon 50D.
    By the way, other readers might be interested to know you can get a really well made Jinbei Caler portable studio lighting kit complete with two fully adjustable flash heads, two light stands, soft boxes, reflectors & flash trigger, all in a nice wheelie case on eBay for about £170.

  • Everything about this meal is fabulous, even the missing potatoes! I’m too lazy to get a similar set up. But I am curious if you would recommend your tripod? I’ve never had one I loved.

  • I actually PAID for a load of wild garlic to plant in my garden last year, and this year I’m wondering what to do with it! Thanks for this idea, but especially for the pesto combo 🙂 I know the post was more about photography, but I’m way more interested in food! BTW, the first time I saw it I assumed it was a typo, but it’s repeated several times…..it’s cavolo nero, not calvo. Literally ‘black cabbage’ in Italian.

  • Manfrotto tripods are excellent

  • Great post, Conor! I have seen you at work and have learned a lot from you about photography already, so no surprises in this post for me. I don’t have to patience or put as much effort into the photography (and storytelling) that you do. I love cavolo nero but am not sure if I have ever tried wild garlic. I love the first plated shot. The arrangement and colors are great. With a hungry Kees waiting, I usually don’t manage to make my food look as good.

  • Wonderful and informative post! Looking forward to a post about your props and maybe a kitchen tour. 🙂

  • *biggest smile in the world* Now I know the real reason I have always been a cuckoo in the nest and do not have my own food blog ! Which definitely does not mean I won’t peruse this wonderful lesson to bits! Ramps – am oh so green around the gills looking at the grand photos from all over GB and the Great Lakes region in the US. Enjoy! Great dish . . .

  • Thank you for all the wonderful tips!! Love the final dinner shot. Beautiful! 💕

  • Oh how fun. I find I’ve lost interest in the photographing of food. Or have just been too darned busy for it. I think it’s the whole “I want to eat my dinner now, not set up all this shit” thing. And, ugh, how I hate the photo editing. But I do keep hoping the enthusiasm comes back. And this helps immensely! (The chicken looks really good, too. Isn’t spring the best??)

  • Oh thank you for sharing tips. The only thing I don’t have is a separate flash. I need to muck about a bit and see what I can come up with!

  • Conor, as always a lovely post and wonderful images. My compliments to you on sharing your photography information. It’s always fun and educational to see how another blogger takes their images. I find lighting to be quite challenging in these Northern Latitudes, so I quite enjoyed seeing your lighting setup.
    A lovely recipe as well. We too eat what we shot, no matter if it’s in the kitchen or in the forest. Thanks for sharing.

  • Conor, thank you so much for your generous post. Even though I love food, I am getting more and more interested in food photography. I have been using only my iPhone, but did recently splurge on a new 50 mm lens for my Canon – so keep the tips coming 😊

  • Conor, this was such a wonderful post. I really do appreciate your behind the scenes explanations, you are very generous to share your expertise…you photos are always so professional. I am one of those that photographs of my plate of food right before it goes to the table at night. Naturally, I take that plate of food as it is always cold and then prepare a hot one for my husband. Now to the recipe, it sounds wonderful and would certainly impress the lucky ones that get a chance to try it.

  • I can hear good sound thank you so much for sharing nice post.

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